Most-Watched Super Bowl Ever Is a Disaster for NBC UniversalS

Jeff Zucker's division made about half as much money last quarter as it did the year before. So to judge by the upward-failure arc of his career, he'll be running GE in about three weeks.

NBC Universal—which runs, among other things, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network, Universal Studios, and a bunch of theme parks—pulled in a profit of $391 million in the first quarter of 2009, versus $712 million in the first quarter of the previous year.

It's yet another colossal failure in Zucker's cap: He single-handedly engineered the demise of NBC from first place to fourth; he spent insane amounts of money on the Olympics in Athens and Beijing, which netted great ratings but not enough ad revenue to keep profits growing; he hired a club-kid to run NBC; and he acknowledged defeat last month. But he keeps on keeping his job, maybe because he dazzles and confuses his General Electric boss Jeffrey Immelt with reflections from his exceedingly bald head.

NBC Universal blames the profit drop squarely on the broadcast television unit, which lets it mask poor executive decisions behind the general advertising recession. Yes, local TV advertising is down because nobody is buying cars. But NBC also says that the Super Bowl was a drag on profits:

While NBC aired Super Bowl XLIII to great ratings success, there were significant production costs to air the big game, combined with rights fees paid to the NFL. Those expenses added up to $45 million in the quarter.

"Ratings success" understates it: Super Bowl 43 was the most-watched Super Bowl game in history, and the second-most watched program in the history of television. That's right: NBC Universal is explaining it's poor performance last quarter by saying that it got stuck with broadcasting the No. 2 television broadcast since the medium was invented. Tough luck guys!

Also dragging down profits were expenses relating to the Beijing Olympics, another huge ratings success that, in the normal course of business, ought to mean more money, not less. DVD sales were also down significantly.

On the upside, NBC Universal's cable networks were up 19%, which explains why executives were describing boring old USA this week as the company's "single biggest asset."